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Stewart Rhodes, founder of Oath Keepers, convicted of seditious conspiracy

Stewart Rhodes and four associates were charged with using force to drive members of Congress out of the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, a fatal attack that interrupted a ceremony to certify the results of the presidential election.

WASHINGTON (CN) — A federal jury entered a guilty verdict Tuesday against Stewart Rhodes, the leader of the extremist right-wing Oath Keepers group, and one of his associates, bringing a close to what has been the most high-profile trial over the Jan. 6 insurrection to date.

Rhodes, 57, and his co-defendant, Kelly Meggs, 53, are the first among scores of defendants charged in connection with the Capitol riot to be prosecuted and convicted of the rare charge of seditious conspiracy, meaning they plotted to use force to disrupt the peaceful transition of power following the 2020 election. Meggs was the leader of a Florida chapter of the Oath Keepers and on Jan. 6 led members of the group into the Capitol.

While the jury acquitted Thomas Caldwell, 68, Jessica Watkins, 40, and Kenneth Harrelson, 41, of the seditious conspiracy charge, it found them guilty alongside Rhodes and Meggs of obstruction of an official proceeding, namely the ceremony that had been underway in Congress on Jan. 6 to certify then-President Donald Trump's election defeat. All five defendants were also convicted of aiding and abetting. All but Watkins were found guilty of destroying evidence. 

Rhodes and Meggs face up to 60 years in prison for the three charges. The jury spent three days in total on deliberations, getting started before the Thanksgiving recess and resuming this week.

After the verdict, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland reiterated his promise from earlier this year that the Department of Justice is “committed to holding accountable those criminally responsible for the assault on our democracy on Jan. 6, 2021.” 

During the more than two months of trial, prosecutors showed records, photos and videos to support the theory that the five defendants planned, recruited and stocked up on weapons as part of a larger plot to “oppose by force the lawful transfer of presidential power.” Prosecutors likened the Oath Keepers' preparation, planning and presence at two pro-Trump rallies held in November and December 2020 in Washington as “dry runs” for their operation on Jan. 6.  

U.S. Attorney Kathryn Rakoczy told jurors during opening arguments that, in the early days after the November election, Rhodes urged regional leaders of the Oath Keepers to refuse to accept President-elect Joe Biden. She said Rhodes transmitted a “step-by-step procedure” that month, detailing how protesters overthrew Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic following his disputed reelection in 2000.  

Rhodes also published two open letters on the Oath Keepers' website by December 2020, imploring Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act to stay in power. Meanwhile Rhodes was also telling his followers that, if Trump did not act, they would have to do it themselves. 

Prosecutors introduced this image of Thomas Caldwell from the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol, part of a YouTube video where he refers to members of Congress as traitors. (Justice Department via Courthouse News)

Once the riot at the Capitol was underway on Jan. 6, 2021, Rakoczy noted during closing arguments, the defendants saw it as an opportunity to “add bodies to the cause” and they took it. Jeffrey Nestler, another federal prosecutor, said the five defendants “claimed to wrap themselves in the Constitution; they trampled it instead. They claimed to be saving the republic; they fractured it instead.”  

Rhodes was one of three of the defendants who testified in the trial. Denying prosecutors’ claim that the Oath Keepers came to Washington on Jan. 6 “prepared for battle,” the eyepatch-wearing veteran insisted they came to provide security detail for rallygoers and speakers, as they have done in years past. Rhodes also said they wanted to be available on standby in case Trump invoked the Insurrection Act to remain in power. The law authorizes a president to call on militias for the purpose of enforcing federal laws or suppressing a rebellion. 

The first defendant to get on the witness stand after Rhodes was Caldwell, a former Navy officer who told the jury that he should not be considered a member of the Oath Keepers since he never paid dues.

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As with Rhodes, there was no allegation that Caldwell physically breached the Capitol building. Rather prosecutors say he was coordinating an armed battalion whom Rhodes was keeping on stand-by at a hotel in Virginia, just across the Potomac River from the Capitol.

Caldwell acknowledged staying at the same hotel but denied that he was in charge of it, testifying that he thought the purpose of this so-called quick reaction force was to “extract people or rescue people.” 

Caldwell's wife offered similar explanations on the witness stand. She insisted the couple went to Washington on Jan. 6 to attend a pro-Trump rally and that their actions that day were peaceful. Caldwell met Rhodes at a rally in November 2020 but denied being in contact with the militia leader on Jan. 6.

One of the last witnesses to testify was Watkins, who held herself out on social media as the commanding officer of the Ohio Regular State Militia, a dues-paying subset of the Oath Keepers. Footage from the riot shows Watkins clad in paramilitary gear, with the Oath Keepers emblem visible.

Watkins admitted to breaching the Capitol in a military-style stack formation with co-defendants Meggs and Harrelson but she insisted that she was caught up the moment, and that there was no plan to breach the Capitol. She said no one really expected Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act, and that it was her belief that China would exploit a Biden administration to invade the U.S. by way of Canada. Earlier in the trial, Watkins’ fiancé also testified on her behalf.  

Prosecutors introduced this image of Jessica Watkins wearing paramilitary equipment and other paraphernalia from the far-right Oath Keepers militia during the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol. (Justice Department via Courthouse News)

Meggs and Harrelson did not testify. Meggs' defense attorney Stanley Woodward questioned witnesses throughout the trial and claimed that his client's only plan was to provide security detail for rallies that coincided with the riot, meaning there could not have been a plan to breach the Capitol. “He can’t be in two places at one time,” Woodward said at summations.  

Harrelson’s attorney Bradford Geyer did not give opening arguments, call any witnesses or present a case. In a closing statement, though, the lawyer did insist that the Oath Keepers could not have led the insurrection based on the timing of how the riot went down. The government “has a time problem,” Geyer said.

Watkins' attorney Jonathan Crisp told Courthouse News he was happy the jury "understood the evidence did not support a conviction on count 1," which is the seditious conspiracy charge.

"I would be lying if I didn't say I was hoping they would also see the evidence the same way [with respect to] to counts 2 and 3," he said, referring to the charges of conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding and obstruction of an official proceeding.

"However, with the rulings in place I understand the jury's decision," Crisp added. "I look forward to sentencing and anticipate the opportunity to further flesh out her mitigating and extenuating factors."

Meggs' attorney Stanley Woodward declined to comment on the verdict in an email.

Attorneys for the other three defendants did not respond to requests for comment after the verdict Tuesday.

U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta has yet to set a sentencing date. 

The federal trial in Washington went over two weeks longer than initially estimated, and Rhodes sat out a portion of it after testing positive for Covid-19. Mehta did order a one-day delay after the diagnosis, followed shortly by another brief delay in relation to Rhodes as well as a defense attorney.  

While seditious conspiracy trials are rare, the Obama-appointed Mehta is set to preside over another one related to the Capitol riot for additional members of the Oath Keepers. A week after that trial opens on Dec. 5, five members of another right-wing group, the Proud Boys, are also set to go to trial before Trump-appointed U.S. District Judge Timothy Kelly in the same courthouse. They all face seditious conspiracy charges as well. 

To date, the government has charged  more than 880 people in connection with the Capitol riot. As of Nov. 6, about 337 people have pleaded guilty to misdemeanors and about 110 have pleaded guilty to felonies. Approximately 173 people have been sentenced to prison time. 

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